Michael Batson

Travel Writer

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Travelogue

Great Walls of Glass - 9 June 2012

Changi International Airport at Singapore is much like the city itself; neat, ordered, clean almost sterile, and almost wholly without character, though to be fair the city has Little India and Chinatown.

Changi is an airport like many others but run with all that efficiency synonymous with the island state. Singapore has two great qualities going for it; its people and the geography. The first is negotiable and the second, an accident of birth.

Changi is a city within a city. The airport is in parts great walls of glass, huge covered passenger processing floors and long, carpeted “piers” stretching off to numerous departure lounges. There are hotels rented by the hour or the day, restaurants, amusement arcades and various entertainments designed to take your money and soothe the soul. There are also swimming pools and theme-based gardens. Changi even offers the opportunity to become a millionaire with a lucky dip for shopping receipts for every $30 spent. At night, the interior resembles a casino, devoid of natural light and timeless.

The airport has over seven hectares (70,000 m2) of space spread between its three main terminals for shopping and eating outlets, 360 shops in total. Terminal 3 out does the rest having the largest amount of retail space. It’s where the first FIFA Official Store in the world was opened, along with Asia's first Ferrari travel retail shop.

There are mini-marts and gyms, restaurants and shops galore throwing all manner of commerce at passengers.  You can buy suits at all hours of the day and night. In terms of sales, the airport outstrips other shopping centres in Singapore, including those in Orchard Road, Singapore’s top tourist spot. It’s not all clockwork however, I found an ATM that didn’t work, or more to the point wouldn’t take my card, so I had to adjourn to a nearby machine.

There are prayer rooms and smoking rooms, the latter entered through double doors to prevent the fumes escaping.

Here and there people were talking on tablets to hotel receptionists somewhere in the universe about availability and cost. Changi is filled with such tablets, most of them for information and advertising. That’s what Changi is, Tablet City, where parts of the interior present a vast array of LCDs accosting your vision. And it’s quiet, almost hushed, people talking are clearly audible but seem to do so in whispers, as if nobody is to be disturbed.

Information guides are everywhere, in all forms human and otherwise, all performance based asking for your feedback, “How do you rate us?” which is probably why it wins so many accolades.

Changi is marketed as an “Experience” much like a shopping centre albeit one with aeroplanes, and comes with a glossy colour guide to its services, 26 pages long and updated quarterly. Changi, it’s always open and the planners seem to have thought of most everything a tired traveller would want.

Once upon a time I liked airports and air travel. They held an expectant air of adventure, and the thought of leaving heightened the whole sense of departure.  In the jet age it is possible to enter through a single doorway, board a plane, and arrive somewhere on the other side of the planet, like some 20th century equivalent of Doctor Who and his inter-galactic Tardis.

Frequency, however, breeds contempt and brings the disconcerted air of drudgery to it all; budget airlines and the much maligned “cattle class” don’t help. The popular travel author Paul Theroux rather snobbishly, considered only train journeys as travel; “everything else” he said, especially planes “is transfer, your journey beginning when the plane lands.” Oh the tedium, but he may have a point.

Tiny Singapore barely 600 square kilometres in area is a logistical leviathan. It is the world’s busiest port in terms of total tonnage.  Half the containers in the world (ninety percent of all commercial goods) traverse the South China Sea, much of them through the narrow Straits of Malacca controlled by – Singapore. The importance of this trade to Singapore may go some way to explaining why a country of less than five million intends spending US$23 billion on high-tech weaponry over the next five years.

Air travel is also critical and much like Singapore itself, Changi keeps getting bigger. By 2030, the land mass of Singapore will have increased by 100 square kilometres since the country’s independence from Malaysia in 1959. Singapore is made up of over 60 islands and one day the might all be linked up. Over half of this land has been given over to the development of Changi, as the airport tries to keep pace and anticipate future growth.

Flying in from Bangkok the plane descends in a corkscrew over lower Malaysia and the South China Sea before crossing the Straits of Johore, a stretch of water that is getting smaller year by year with dredgings, sea walls and massive reclamation works going on round the clock.

Singapore was once described “the Gibraltar of the East” as it had so many guns; unfortunately for its defences in the 1940s they faced the wrong way and lacked adequate supplies of ordnance.

During World War Two the straits weren’t wide enough to save Singapore from the invading Japanese forces. A feat the Japanese, outgunned and outnumbered, achieved with the help of that technical wonder, the bicycle.

Changi then became home to half the over 100,000 Allied prisoner where food quickly ran out after a fortnight, conditions were a portent of privations and brutality to come. After this many were then forced to construct 400 kilometres of railway on the Thai-Burmese border, famously depicted in David Lean’s film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, though Hollywood sanitised the prisoners’ conditions.

Ironically, given Singapore’s bitter experiences in the 20th century as a lynchpin in Britain’s regional defences with naval bases and airfields including Changi’s predecessors, much of the reclamation work is undertaken by Japanese companies.

Singapore’s founding father and still chief string-puller, Lee Kuan Yew who experienced Japanese excesses first-hand was, and is, ever the pragmatist. For a man who once expressed concern at Japan’s rearmament as “giving chocolate liqueurs to an alcoholic” Singapore’s development is always paramount.

Today there’s a flight through Changi every 100 seconds; that’s roughly two passengers every second, equivalent to the entire population of Spain (46.5 million people) every year moving through the place; and it’s getting bigger.

Changi Airport is an example of state control. This is Singapore Inc., the country where single-party-rule longevity is only outranked by North Korea, China and (just) Cuba from 1959. It’s easier getting things done in a pseudo-democracy. Changi opened in 1981 and was ranked the world’s seventh-busiest airport in 2011 in terms of international passenger traffic and second-busiest in Asia after Hong Kong.  

Everything happens under the watch of the airport’s control tower dubbed “Airtropolis” a 78 metre high structure, one of the few features visible across the facility. As you would expect in Singapore, once inside the terminals passenger movements are monitored through hundreds of cameras, even your time on the 500 or so free internet terminals is monitored and timed.

From Changi the most popular destinations are regional emphasizing the increasing dominance of the region; Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand  and the Philippines, with London’s Heathrow ranked seventh.

Once upon a time, Changi was Singapore's third main civilian airport after Seletar, the former Royal Air Force flying station and the main airport from 1930–37; and Kallang, Singapore’s first civilian airport, which opened in 1955 with a single runway and a small passenger  terminal.

In 1975 the government decided to build new Changi at the existing airbase on the island’s eastern tip, where it could expand through reclamation and away from the expanding cityscape. In a country known for its big development projects, Changi was to be one of the largest in the tiny island’s history.

Never one to sit still the government decreed a development policy of forever creating capacity ahead of demand. A second terminal was completed in 1989 and a third became operational in 2008. in between there was a budget terminal 2006 along with a dedicated stand-alone VIP terminal, the first luxury airport terminal in Asia to cater for the other end of the economic spectrum.

The airport continuously upgrades and expands its existing terminals including the Skytrain to connect the terminals and in turn to the city’s MRT network. Silver metallic rolling stock ferry the hordes from one terminal to another, complete with automated voices reminding me of the robotic taxi driver in the science fiction movie, Total Recall “have nice day.”

Since the Twin Towers attacks and the naming of the airport as a terrorism target by the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiah, the airport's security has been stepped up. Measures include roving patrols of Gurkhas paid for through the “passenger security service charge” imposed since 2002. Singapore has a history of importing security personnel, for years they were New Zealanders, but now are the famous fellows from Nepal.

For all the precision, there’s something Changi can’t do, guarantee your plane leaves on time if it arrives behind schedule. If there’s anything worse than catching a plane at 11:30pm having been traveling all day it’s having one leave late. But if you’re stuck waiting it may as well be at Changi.

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